Although Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter, at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets downtown, is scheduled to change hands at the end of August, it will remain open for at least another month until its residents have been placed in other facilities and housing programs.
That’s the first message that Jack Hardin, co-chairman of the Regional Commission on Homelessness, wants people to know. Hardin, a corporate lawyer whose volunteer efforts have long focused on homelessness, said that since it was announced in late June that the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless would be vacating the shelter, he’s had to reassure concerned acquaintances that its occupants would not be turned out to wander the streets.
Instead, he said, the Regional Commission, which operates under the auspices of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, plans to send caseworkers into the shelter over the next few weeks to do individual assessments on the approximately 500 men—and a possible handful of women and children—staying there to determine what specific kind of help they need. Hardin said his group could begin placing people in other programs even before the Task Force leaves.
The imminent closing of Peachtree-Pine is the result of the settlement of a long-running lawsuit in which the Task Force had accused the City of Atlanta; Central Atlanta Progress, the community development organization for downtown; Emory Healthcare; and other groups of conspiring to take away the shelter’s funding and cause its eviction from the building that had been its home for the past two decades.
After countless legal twists and turns that include the city’s dismissal from the lawsuit, the case was set to be heard by a jury last month, until it was finally resolved in a settlement that leaves the 100,000-square-foot former auto-parts warehouse at 477 Peachtree Street in the hands of CAP—reportedly in exchange for a $9.7 million payout to the Task Force, although that and other details are officially under seal. By some accounts, Task Force founder Anita Beaty left the group last year because she didn’t want to accept a settlement.
Hardin said CAP had asked his group for assistance in finding places for shelter residents, but it’s a role that the commission has been anticipating for years.
“When the court gave its first eviction order to the Task Force in 2012 (which was quickly appealed), we were looking at an emergency situation in which a number of existing shelters would need to step up and take in the population,” he said. “Even though the shelter remained open, I figured that someday it would close, so I said let’s start getting prepared.”
A widespread misconception is that the Peachtree-Pine population will need to be found the same type of space in other shelters. “A lot of people make the assumption that, if you lose a certain number of shelter beds, you need to create the same number of beds elsewhere,” said Hardin, who points out that the preferred methods for combating homelessness have evolved substantially in recent years—and have become more effective than many people realize.
For the past several years, Atlanta’s approach to dealing with homelessness has been refined into a so-called “continuum of care” that includes more than 100 government and charitable agencies providing transitional housing, drug treatment, educational support, and other services. Hardin serves on the board of one such organization, Georgia Works!, that’s garnered national attention for providing housing and job training to homeless and drug-addicted men. Two years ago, Mayor Kasim Reed launched Partners for H.O.M.E., a city program that helps coordinate local homeless services, funded by a $3.3 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Around the same time, he floated plans—but ran into some opposition in neighborhoods such as Pittsburgh and Adair Park—to build several smaller facilities around the city with wraparound services that could accommodate 20 to 30 people. And during his State of the City address in February, Reed announced a new, $50 million program named HomeStretch—with half the money to be raised by the United Way and the balance matched by the city—whose aim is nothing less than eliminating chronic homelessness in Atlanta.
Hardin says that’s a goal that’s within the scope of reality. Thanks to various public and private initiatives, the number of homeless people in Atlanta has been reduced by 40 percent over the past six years, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “If we can cut it by 40 percent, we can get it to zero,” Hardin said. “We functionally ended homelessness in this country before, in the years during and following World War II, and we can do it again.”
In the meantime, the Regional Commission is working with Fulton County to reopen Jefferson Place, a former shelter on Atlanta’s westside that the county closed five years ago, to take in some of the men now at Peachtree-Pine.
This past Wednesday, in an appearance before a City Council committee, Partners for H.O.M.E. executive director Cathryn Marchman explained that there has long been a plan in place for absorbing the Peachtree-Pine population into the current support network that prioritizes the most vulnerable individuals. “The idea is not just to move everyone to a different shelter, but to do assessments in order to place them with existing providers,” she said.